Orange County’s COVID-19 hospitalizations ticked down as the county logged four more fatalities, according to data released Tuesday by the Orange County Health Care Agency.
Hospitalizations decreased from 195 on Monday to 188 on Tuesday, with the level of intensive care unit patients remaining at 56.
The county reported 652 new infections, raising the cumulative pandemic total to 320,838. The fatalities logged Tuesday increased the overall death toll to 5,857.
On Friday, the Orange County Health Care Agency reported the county’s first case of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. The infection was detected in a man who is fully vaccinated and has experienced mild illness.
Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention, said Monday it’s only a matter of time before Omicron has an impact on the county’s infection rates.
“The situation right now is still stable in Orange County,” Noymer said. “Two hundred (patients) is kind of our equilibrium for hospitalizations. But it’s going to go up before it goes down again because this national Omicron wave is not going to leave us unscathed. It’s only a matter of time before that arrives on our shores.”
The size of the surge remains an open question, he said.
“It’s not if, but when” there is a surge, Noymer said. “The other question is how big a wave.”
It is possible the wave could mirror the Delta variant-fueled surge of this summer, Noymer said.
“We’ll be fortunate if that’s the worst of it,” he said. “The worst-case scenario is like last January, but I don’t think it will get that bad.”
And even if hospitalizations rival last winter’s levels, there likely won’t be as many deaths because of the vaccines, Noymer said.
“There’s still a lot of haziness in the crystal ball on exactly what the contours of Omicron will do to Orange County,” Noymer said. “We’ll know more when we get more data from the U.S. … We’ll know more soon.”
The county had 22.5% of its ICU beds and 69% of its ventilators available as of Tuesday. Of those hospitalized, 87% are unvaccinated and 89% in intensive care are unvaccinated.
Meanwhile, the county’s deputy health officer advised residents to dial down their holiday plans amid increasing COVID-19 concerns.
Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong last week also advised residents to invest in better-quality masks with an expected winter surge in cases looming and potentially further fueled by the more contagious Omicron strain.
When asked about parents wanting to take their children to see holiday shows, Chinsio-Kwong said, “I get it. I have kids who really want to go out and see performances.”
But, she added that she “went out and bought more disposable masks,” and suggested that surgical N95 masks are preferred over cloth masks.
Chinsio-Kwong stressed residents should be on guard even while gathering outdoors.
“If you already bought your tickets to `The Nutcracker,’ I guess you can consider going … but I would strongly advise your child, who is vaccinated, to wear a very snug N95 mask,” Chinsio-Kwong told reporters.
Avoid going to the movies, she said.
“You can do movies at home,” she said. “It’s actually better at home. You can get popcorn, spread your feet out. It’s probably safer that way. … But if you decide to go the movie theater, wear an upgraded mask … and eat a snack afterwards or outdoors.”
Chinsio-Kwong said she is going to rethink holiday get-togethers.
“My family is fully vaccinated, but I’m really going to think hard about this one,” she said. “I’m going to request all of my family members be fully vaccinated and boosted. I’m going to probably even give out a lot of masks as gifts to make sure they’re safe. I’m not thinking about being in crowded areas.”
Orange County is 66% fully vaccinated, but there are about 700,000 residents who have not gotten even one dose of vaccine, Chinsio-Kwong said.
“This is still a significant number,” she said. “That means one in five who are eligible are not protected with even a single dose. This is problematic with Delta and Omicron circulating.”
Even without the pandemic, winter is among the busiest times for hospitals, as there is often a rise in influenza and cardiac cases as well as domestic violence cases, she said.
Chinsio-Kwong acknowledged mask fatigue, but emphasized residents have to stick it out for at least another month or so.
To those still hesitant or nervous about getting vaccinated, she implored them to speak with their doctor. Fears of side effects like myocarditis from the vaccines are dwarfed by the impact COVID-19 can have on the heart, Chinsio-Kwong said.
Studies show that Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are at least 70% effective against infection for the Omicron variant, Chinsio-Kwong said, adding that they nearly always protect recipients from hospitalization or death.
Three of the fatalities logged Tuesday occurred this month, raising December’s death toll so far to 14. The fourth fatality happened in November, raising that month’s death toll to 97.
October’s death toll stands at 126, 196 for September and 182 for August.
In contrast, the death toll before the more contagious Delta variant fueled a summer surge was 31 in July, 19 for June, 26 for May, 46 for April, 202 for March and 620 for February.
January 2021 remains the deadliest month of the pandemic with a death toll of 1,596, ahead of December 2020, the next deadliest at 985.